I've always loved creating characters. Maybe it's because I'm an introvert and easily get lost in my head or because I'm a kid at heart and love having the imaginary friends to go with it. Or maybe it's simply because that's how writers are.
Whatever the case, dreaming up new fictional babies is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. But, despite my love, I used to struggle every day to bring the vision I had of my characters to life on the page.
Instead of the vibrant, interesting people I had milling around in my daydreams, my characters were dull and cliché, the archetypical brooding heroes and manic pixie dream girls and maniacal masterminds you'd find in bad teenage movies and overrated crime shows.
Having these boring characters was killing my story's chances of success.
Why? As I've said many times before, characters are the backbone of your novel. It's their actions that make up the plot, and their stories that make a connection with readers. Without interesting characters, your entire novel will fall flat, which is probably not what what you're going for, right?
It wasn't what I was going for either.
So I took a long, hard look at my work in an attempt to figure out where I was going wrong. Did I not know my characters well enough? Had I created boring characters in the first place? Did I simply need more experience in writing them?
I stressed over all of these questions as I reread my work, wondering what I could do to better my characterization and write a more captivating story, but–try as I might–I still couldn't figure out why my characters seemed so dull.
Cue my saving grace...
While scrolling through Pinterest one day, I rediscovered MBTI–the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.
I had heard of this personality test before, and even tried it out once upon a time, but I'd never put much stock in boxing my personality into just four little letters. And I certainly never considered using a personality test to better understand my characters...
But this time around, I was desperate to know why my characters seemed so boring, so I clicked through the link and took the test from one of my main character's perspectives, putting myself in her shoes as best as I could.
And you know what? The MBTI worked some crazy magic that day.
As I sifted through the results of the test, I kept shouting "YES! That is so Thea!". The insights the test provided were spot on to my original vision for that character. And better still, I understood Thea on a far deeper level than I ever had before.
I was no longer writing from her perspective. When I picked up the pen, I became her.
And as I read back through my new work, I realized that I had somehow managed to bring Thea to life in a way that I was never able to accomplish before I'd nailed down her personality type.
So let me ask you: are you frustrated with your current portrayal of your characters? Know that you don't have to settle for cliché. You have an amazing vision for your characters, and you can bring that vision to the page.
Allow me to introduce you to my new best friend - the Myers Briggs Type Indicator!
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a personality assessment compiled by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers-Briggs (hurray, ladies!) to make the work of psychologist C. G. Jung available and applicable to the average man.
This assessment classifies participants into one of sixteen personality types based off of the most relevant indicators of four dichotomies. Is that confusing? Allow me to explain further...
Essentially, the MBTI assessment defines a participant's personality type by asking them to answer a series of questions surrounding four "this or that" pillars. Check out this direct breakdown from The Myers & Briggs Foundation website:
Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
You may have noticed the letters in parentheses beside each indicator. These letters are used to make up a personality type. For example, when I assessed my own personality type using the MBTI, I discovered that I was INFJ.
This means that I am generally an introverted, intuitive, feeling, and judging person. Obviously, my personality goes beyond just four words, but those words served as the basis of the more complex personality description I received in my MBTI results.
I learned so much about the way I think and feel and act from taking the test, and it can do the same for your understanding of your characters!
(Side note: INFJ is the rarest personality type in the world, making up only .05% to 2% of all personality types, so if you happen to also be an INFJ I would love to hear from you! We weirdos have to stick together, ya know?)
Before we move on to talking about your characters, check out a quick summary of what each of the sixteen personality types entail. Keep in mind that this is just a quick overview. You'll learn a lot more by taking the test!
You might be wondering how this personality test can help you bring your characters to life. After all, boxing your characters into a specific type can seem like the opposite of setting them free. How can a simple assessment help you make your characters shine?
Take a look at the four main questions the assessment asks:
- How does engaging with other people affect you?
- How do you process new information?
- How do you make decisions?
- How do you prefer your life to be structured?
Each of these questions leads to an answer that directly influences your character's portrayal. Knowing these answers inside and out will help you define your character's relationships, the actions they take to achieve their goals, how they handle setbacks, and so much more.
Not convinced that knowing their personality types will make writing well-developed characters simpler? Take a look:
- Unsure of how your character will handle being put in the spotlight? Discover if they are introverted (I) or extroverted (E).
- Unsure of how your character will react to a shocking revelation? Discover if they are sensing (S) or intuitive (N).
- Unsure of how your character will make a tough decision? Discover if they are thinking (T) or feeling (F).
- Unsure of what steps your character will take to achieve their goal? Discover if they are judging (J) or perceiving (P).
See what I mean? There is hardly any character-related problem you might face during the writing process that can't be solved by knowing your character's personality type. Simply take a look at your character's MBTI results, and you'll know what decision to make.
Does this make your characters predictable? Perhaps. But knowing your characters' types offers your novel a tangible realism that can't be accomplished any other way.
Besides, every personality type is like an onion. A character may appear to be simple on the surface, but there are many other traits hidden just beneath. It's your job to peel back the layers and reveal who they really are at heart, and I promise that this process will never leave your readers snoring.
So how can you get to know your characters' personality types?
First things first, you'll need to take an MBTI assessment. The official test from The Myers & Briggs Foundation will set you back $50, but there are several free, unofficial tests that are just as professional and insightful. My personal favorite is the one offered at 16Personalities.com.
In addition to the identification of a personality type, 16 Personalities offers an extremely insightful overview of what it means to have a certain personality type. You can learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the people who have a specific type, what careers best suit them, how they act and what they need from certain relationships, and so much more.
I recommend taking this test from the perspective of each of your notable primary and secondary characters, especially those who serve as POV characters or whose actions directly affect the plot. In order to achieve the best results, focus on what you already know about each character.
When the questions appear, your gut instinct will be to answer them according to your own preferences. Try your best to push this instinct aside and put your character's instinct in the forefront.
Once you've completed the assessment, make sure to mark down your character's type in an easy-to-access place - such as the reference guide section of your Novel Planner - so that you can easily refer to this info as you write, and don't forget to also take down any important notes on your character's personality type.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to get to know all of your major characters.
Finally, consider how you can implement your characters' personality types throughout your story. Here are few of my favorite ways:
Making decisions. When presented with the same predicament, not everyone will make the same decision. Knowing your characters' personality types–and specifically whether or not they are thinking (T) or feeling (F)–will make their decisions clear.
Identifying goals. Some people prefer to live on the wild side while others prefer the security of a traditional lifestyle. Knowing whether your characters are judging (J) or perceiving (P) will help you define their ultimate goal once the villain is defeated.
Interacting with others. Some people are quite open and vulnerable in their relationships–and even with strangers–while others are more cautious or prefer to be left alone. Knowing whether your characters are introverted or extraverted will help you decide how they will interact with others.
Dialogue. Not everyone says what they are thinking. Getting to know how all of the elements of your characters' personality types work together will help you identify the difference between their thoughts and words, as well as what makes up each.
Internal monologue. Ever wonder what's going on in someone else's head? Your readers want to know the same about your characters. Understanding their personality types in full will help you identify their worries, how they process tough situations, and the steps they plan to take in order to move forward.
Quirks. Everyone has their little oddities. By giving your characters quirks, you're setting your readers up for an interesting and relatable read.
Looking for further MBTI inspiration? Wondering what personality types some of your favorite characters fall in to? Make sure to follow the Pinterest board I created specifically for housing character personality tips!
The board is fairly new, but I'll be adding new pins every week.
Do you have any questions about the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and how you can use it to better translate the characters from your head onto the page? Share them in the comments below and I'll be sure to get back to you!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!